#291 from Innovative Leader Volume 6, Number 8          August 1997

Is Someone Driving You Up the Wall?
by Gary A. Crow, Ph.D.

Dr. Crow is executive director of the Lorain County Children Services in Elyria, Ohio (phone 216-329-5340).  He is author of The Frustration Factor (Glenbridge Publishing, Lakewood, CO, 1995).

Many of us have a staff member who totally drives us up the wall.  That person takes a lot of emotional energy out of you, energy that you could use to get your work done.  These people are mostly motivated by personal needs, status goals and insecurities.  If their private goals are compatible with your company’s, that’s fine; if not, their selfish interests prevail.  Here are three common up-the-wall drivers and some hints at how to address the problem.

Doing It By The Book

Rich’s approach to driving people up the wall is by the book.  His main play is to do things the same way he always does them.  What has worked before is likely to work again.  He knows people seldom find fault with his handling things in the usual way, whether it works or not.

Next, Rich always looks at how things can go sour, but gives little thought to how they can succeed.  Whenever he has to do something that entails risk, he spends most of his time figuring out what to say if it goes sour.  Of course, the best thing to say is, “I was uneasy about this, but went along reluctantly.  I handled it the same way we always handle things.”

Rich has an explanation for failure made up ahead of time.  Another version of this is not to do anything innovative, and to keep others from coming up with new ways of doing things.

What’s Going On? You should understand that people like Rich have little faith in their abilities and less faith in their basic grasp or understanding of complex situations.  Since they don’t believe they can trust their judgments or instincts, they don’t take any chances.

They also don’t have much ability to anticipate or predict the behavior of others.  The idea is that they can’t assess whether a specific action will lead to praise or punishment.  Usually, they think the likely outcome will be punishment.

What Should You Do?  If the only reaction Rich gets from you is negative or critical, he will just put more energy into avoiding negative reactions.  So you should consider whether someone like Rich is actually a product of your behavior.

But you can say, “What do you think?  Is there a better way to do this?”  He may say “Yes” in some situations, and “No” in others, depending on what he thinks is safest.  Whatever he says, the question is then, “Why would you go that way?”  The idea is to walk him through the decision-making process.  In most situations, you can close with, “You seem to have some ideas about this.  Use your best judgment.”

When he starts taking more chances and making decisions, it’s important not to be too negative when things don’t work out.  Avoid the temptation to second guess.  Remember, avoiding negative reactions is why he’s playing the by-the-book game.  Your goal is to teach and encourage in positive and supportive ways.  The reward for the player has to come primarily through success, thereby increasing his judgment and initiative.

The Faultfinder

Henry walks into the lounge and hears Doris saying, “It’s their fault, down in that office.  They always get things screwed up.  We work our tails off and they can’t get anything right.”

Picking up on the assault, Greg says, “Do we ever get a thank you?  Not a chance!”

Henry joins in, “You can say that again.  It’s about time we start putting the responsibility directly on them, since they cause the problems.”

Greg says, “I know people have bad days, but that’s no excuse.  They have to do it right every time, including the little things.  It’s professionalism we’re talking about.”  Everyone nods at the profundity.

What’s Going On? Management and psychology texts argue that people will do as well as they can under the specific circumstances.  They only need to accept the underlying values, understand the problem, and receive support and encouragement.  Faultfinders like those in the lounge, don’t buy into that.  They only need to look around at their co-workers to see the absurdity in the “People are good and want to do the right thing,” hypothesis. 

Faultfinders can look at almost any behavior, activity or project and point out things that should have worked out better or faster.  They can point to people who should have been smarter or sharper.  They also call attention to events or circumstances that someone should have handled more smoothly or efficiently.  The faultfinders always do better, they believe, so it’s reasonable to expect others to do the same. 

It may be human nature to see faultfinders as confident people who have high standards and a low tolerance for anything less than perfection.  The truth is that they cannot separate the important from the unimportant, the essential from the unessential.  They can recognize when things aren’t the way they think they’re supposed to be and are quick to point it out—to anyone who will listen.

What they cannot recognize is a reasonable example of something.  They cannot tell when someone does a job well enough for the purpose.  They cannot see that behavior sometimes only varies in style or as a function of personality.  They need an exact match with their view of how things ought to be, or they see no match at all.  And of course, there are never any mitigating circumstances.

What Should You Do?  If you want to keep faultfinders from driving you up the wall, don’t react, don’t come to the bait.  The bait is the urge to react negatively, to tell them off, to refuse to work with them, or to resign to the inevitable while you’re boiling inside.  Instead, make the changes that are appropriate and reasonable.  Remember that they are sometimes right, and not just faultfinding. 

Here’s the trick.  Without overdoing it, find honest opportunities to say supportive things to faultfinders.  Point out things they have done especially well.  Comment when one of their skills or abilities makes things easier for you or helps things turn out successfully.  The real issue is that they’re actually very insecure people who are as critical with themselves as they are with everyone else.  They need more than average amounts of approval and positive reinforcement.

In the short run, relating to them in these positive ways will change the way they behave around you.  It will have little carry-over affect on their behavior in other situations. As the faultfinder’s behavior changes around you, you might say, “I’m surprised people think you’re so critical and faultfinding.  You aren’t that way around me at all.”  It’s at least worth a try, if it matters to you how he or she behaves in other situations.  If not, just be happy that you’re not being driven up the wall anymore.

Agitators

Rose hangs around when others are talking, always lingers a little after meetings, and just starts talking when people are working.  Her game is to get people talking whether or not they want to.

Once people are talking, she jumps in or says something like, “I couldn’t help hearing what you were talking about.”  Of course, she could help it.  She makes a point to hear.  Nonetheless, she now expresses her opinion.  Whatever the topic, she has an opinion.

Her opinion is that things are a mess.  She thinks things should be handled better. Why?  Everyone—except her—is incompetent and doesn’t know what he or she is doing.  Adding, “I’ve said this before, but….” is a master touch.

If someone asks Rose for her opinion on something, she says, “I have some strong opinions on this, but I want to hear your ideas first.”  Notice she is clear about her having opinions—more than one—on the topic.  No matter what the other person says, Rose is ready.  She has managed to move back to a position from which to react to what others are saying.  She isn’t one to let anyone get her out of position.  The thorn of Rose works best as a weapon with which to stick someone, anyone.

What’s Going On? Understanding the motivations of agitators isn’t too difficult if you look at their behavior and then ask yourself why they are behaving that way.  More to the point, what do they get out of it? 

The agitator makes things seem bad, people seem incompetent, and everything appears worse than it is.  The agitator gets attention, gets a little more power for a little while, and is seen as someone who is in the know and on top of things.

What Should You Do? Listen to what the agitator has to say, and then say, “You are really something.  You can find more ways to look at things negatively than anyone I know.”  The strategy is to call the agitator on the behavior and make it clear that you have no interest in what he says.  There’s no power reinforcement for the behavior.

If an agitator says something negative about someone.  The classy response is, “I’m surprised to hear you say that.  I don’t think it’s true.”  The agitator will almost always press on with, “It is true!  I….”  She goes on to give some more negative things.

Your response is, “You probably would describe the tooth fairy as a thief.”  Now comes the real trick.  No matter what the agitator says next, don’t respond. Quietly and calmly, call them on their behavior and then let it go.

Agitating tends to be contagious. People who just enjoy small talk—almost always about other people who aren’t there—inadvertently pick up the behavior.  Therefore, it’s important to stop it as quickly and completely as possible.

Locate the most vocal agitator and then do two things.  First, privately ask what problems he sees or what concerns he has.  If necessary, candidly share with him what you have learned he is saying or complaining about.  Once the issues are on the table, you and he can go into a problem-solving mode.

Next, and this is the key, tell him that his agitating behavior is unacceptable.  Let him know that you’re always available to work on problems, but won’t tolerate agitating.  He will undoubtedly act shocked and deny the behavior.  Nonetheless, make your point and don’t argue.

If necessary, and after giving problem solving a chance, say, “This behavior must stop.  If not, I will state at a group meeting that your destructive behavior must end.  I will also caution your associates not to follow your example.”  This is usually enough.  You must not be bluffing, though.  It may be necessary for you to follow through, especially with dyed-in-the-wool agitators.

With these hints at dealing with people who drive you up the wall, your job should become not only more pleasant, but also more productive.

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